Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wake Up Call for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

I must say that I appreciate the the energy around PD, especially from the Senate, however, I think it is far more telling than you may think and in a bad way. If I may rob a phrase that is common currency for such feelings in Sierra Leone, my response to the Senate, "Eh bo! U hav not don good fo mi." Highlighting the closure of American Centers (among the other names given to them in S.R. 49) or the restructuring of these institutions within embassy compounds couldn't be farther from the reality. Instead, speaking for myself and myself alone, it shows that, even when we start to get serious about PD and how to revamp it, we are out of the we, I mean the federal government in the School House Rock sense (you haven't lived if you haven't seen School House Rock, but I digress).

Commence reality check sequence in 4...3...2...1...

Please check this quick reference to how citizens of Bo, Sierra Leone's 2nd city, commemorated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (actually the event was on 1-28-09). What's that, Senate? You wasted tax dollars drafting S.R. 49 and my valuable time reading the linked document? I'll accept your apology on official letterhead. Oh, still not convinced? Okay, well, follow this link and realize that you will need both hands to account for all of the American Corner locations in Indonesia alone. We don't have that many embassy compounds within which to barricade all of these American Corners...instead, we've partnered with local institutions to bring America to each locality in the way that matches the people, the time, and the place. Sens. Lugar and Kerry, you still haven't had enough? That's fine, I'm serving it up all day here. You're going to need an abacus to count all of the American Corner locations on this spreadsheet that comes to you care of one of the four American Corner locations in Hungary alone. On top of the spreadsheet, the same American Corner in Eger, Hungary brings you a full agenda for 2008-2009 which includes a lecture series on American culture, a chance to talk with an economist about the economic crisis, a competition on knowledge of the U.S. for secondary students, workshops on studying in the U.S., a lecture series on the 1960s U.S. talking about the movements and people that shaped the decade, "America through Hungarian Eyes" - an amateur photo competition for Hungarians, and a "My America, or that's how I see the U.S." multimedia art competition for primary and secondary school students. After checking out some of these links, it's plain to me that the U.S. Foreign Service is overwhelmingly hunkered down behind embassy walls and scrambling. Okay, so I suppose I laid the sarcasm on a little thick here. Let's step back

Security concerns are not an issue when the U.S. partners with local institutions and actors to bring the message of the U.S. to foreign audiences through an institution that is a step removed from the source. In other words, and as we've seen in our reading assignments and course discussions on propaganda, S.R. 49 would only serve to bring American Corners back closer to the realm of propaganda to be dismissed by the audience rather than a valuable message that comes in a digestible package for foreign publics.

So, requests to our dear Senate: one, please recoup the payments rendered to any staffer associated with the formulation of S.R. 49's understanding of American corners/hubs/centers/resource centers/(insert other name that shows that someone didn't do their research and was trying to cover the bases here) and redirect it to expanding PD in Washington and abroad; two, please invite more important people to the Hill to discuss this topic because any attention is good attention right now - perhaps we can get former Secretary Albright in on a book deal; three, please put a little more effort into the institutionalization of PD in the national security apparatus, but also into the federal government as a whole.

With this last point, it does fall somewhat in line with the "unity of message" point cited from Lugar in the comment to Leslie's posting, but at the same time, it must be comprehensive because there are several departments and agencies that work abroad in oft overlooked capacities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has its own foreign service and even the Department of Interior has the authority to engage in international affairs.


  1. Being out of touch seems to be the most common criticism of the U.S. Whether it's citizens pointing the finger at elected officials, or the rest of the world talking about the the U.S., 'out of touch' is a phrase heard often. More than just the scattered, unpolished knowledge Jameson points to in the Senate Report, it seems to me that Sen. Lugar is far more interested in propaganda than good will. In this Foreign Policy article (, the rhetoric of competition overpowers his message of the positive side of PD. Any one reading this article outside of the U.S. would have a valid reason to be skeptical of new U.S.-PD initiatives. Take the following paragraph:

    Not just America's friends, but America's opponents, too, are wielding this public diplomacy tool [cultural centers]: Iran has spread a broad network of cultural centers, including many in the same Muslim countries that the United States is trying to reach.

    Should PD really be about competition? Is it 'our' culture vs. 'yours?' What is the 'message' we're trying to get across to the rest of the world?

  2. I admit, Jameson using Hungary as an example to point out that there is an extensive network of American Corners worldwide did grab my attention (I am Hungarian-American after all). With that aside, I had no idea such American Corners even existed. I had thought that with the closure of the United States Information Agency in the late 1990s, no place existed to expose foreign publics to information about the U.S. except for embassies and consulates.

    Interestingly enough, a fifth American Corner just opened in Hungary last week (

    “On February 18th, 2009, the fifth American Corner in Hungary opened at Corvinus University in Budapest. Like the already existing corners in Pécs, Debrecen, Eger and Veszprém, the American Corner in Budapest will provide a window on the U.S. for the general public.

    The opening ceremony at Corvinus University took place in the Grand Hall in front of over a hundred educational, cultural, political and business leaders of Hungary as well as representatives of the Hungarian media and the Budapest diplomatic corps. In her welcoming remarks Ambassador Foley called the new corner ‘a portal for gaining access to resources about America.’ And a place ‘to exchange thoughts and opinions with Americans.’ She promised that it would serve as ‘a venue for joint programs with the University, such as lectures, speakers, discussion groups, and exhibits, to increase mutual understanding.’”

    I think American Corners are a great concept and as Jameson implies, a worthy alternative to reviving American Centers. I could only imagine the security situation publics would have to endure visiting an American Center at a U.S. embassy. Even the U.S. embassy in Budapest, located on a beautiful square, is completely cordoned off by fencing, providing a not-so-welcome atmosphere.

    As long as the American Corners are monitored by foreign service officers, provide up-to-date and useful information, and are well-publicized so ordinary citizens can take advantage of them, I believe they can be beneficial to those seeking information about the U.S. without seeming too much like government propaganda. In the meantime, they may possibly create some goodwill towards the U.S. as well.

  3. I'm a fan of the American Corners program. However, I think it needs to be pointed out that most of the corners are in universities that are accessible to the general public. The link you provide to the Indonesia site bares that out.

    There are still American Centers out there in addition to American Corners and there is consideration being given to open still more. Given that fact, I don't think it's unreasonable to examine the conflict between security concerns and the need to create an open environment. I don't see it as a slap in the face to the American Corners program either. One simply has nothing to do with the other.

    Finally, I apologize, but I think it's naive to think that ANY program sponsored by an American institution, whether it be the State Department or a non-profit or a university will not be viewed as "propaganda" by at least some people whether it partners with a local organization or is an embassy building. I know a foreign professor who runs a university based American studies program with a library and he is constantly having to explain that he is not paid by the U.S. to propagandize. Those perceptions will be out there no matter what we do.

  4. I meant to say universities that are NOT accessible to the general public.

  5. Kathy:

    My criticism of Senator Lugar doesn't really branch from the same vein as the "he's out of touch with the experience of real Americans" crowd so much as it is spawned by the fact that, in my view, the American Corners are the same as the American Centers (and as such are wrongly pegged as being pressed back inside the confines of U.S. embassy/consulate compounds).

    To your question, I think it relates back to the discussion we had in the first weeks of class regarding the evolution of information flows from quantity battles (broadcasting information to as many people as possible, etc.) to targeting information to effectively reach people apart from all of the information out there (twittering, Facebook, etc.). What I mean is that I agree with you on Lugar's intent and I think he's stuck in the mindset that China's institutes or Iran's efforts pit the U.S. in a competition to see who can produce the most culture to the host country audience, which is unhelpful in and of itself. Considering that we are trying to push a vision of the United States, though, there is merit to viewing it as a competition, with a different slant. Basically, it's not zero-sum of "ours" is better than "theirs." It is, however, the case that there is overlap between cultures in countries while there are also areas of great divergence. Where there's overlap, PD can benefit both sides and where there is divergence, PD is a tool for communicating these circumstances effectively (you can take this to mean bad-mouthing another country on human rights when you consider your record to be markedly better, etc.)

    Break to Mitch:

    Good sir, thank you for your comments. Some additional points for consideration. The American Corners are partnerships between those local institutions (universities, libraries, libraries at universities, etc.) and the embassy (typically the Public Affairs Office) that provide services from language instruction, basic library materials, Internet access, etc. under the auspices of a Memorandum of Understanding. I'm not quite sure what you are referencing in the links to Indonesia ACs beyond the fact that they are all in universities, but again, the MOU has provisions that local institutions not bar access. Do you think it is a bad idea to locate our centers as partnerships with locally respected and established institutions? We could open a bunch of centers in line with China's institutes, but you establish a divide between the local population and your institution if you build it completely separate, right? Further, I was not saying that American Centers are competing with American Corners, I was saying that they are one in the same. Hence, my criticism of the SFRC for drafting a resolution as if these institutions do not exist right now, save for the IRCs behind embassy walls. Lastly, it would, indeed, be a bit naive to think that ANY program sponsored by any outside institution would be safe from the propaganda charge, but the impact of these people would depend on their position in that society and the charges that they could reasonably bring to bear in a given situation. We have crazies here that think our public libraries are calibrated to brain wash people with the material available, so it would be rational to expect suspicion abroad. I have an anecdote for you on this one, though, and it involves somewhat of a generalization about developing countries. Think about how easy it is to find a library here in the U.S. and then think to Bo, Sierra Leone where there is one library that is running because the U.S. government provides the funding not only for the American Corner, but for the entire library. This is a place where Sierra Leoneans can go and get on the Internet (without any direction or other force compelling them to look at information about the U.S.) and read information about the U.S. not only news, but also books and materials by American authors. If we were spreading propaganda, I don't think we'd let people in on the 1960s and the different events and people that shaped that decade in the U.S. We wouldn't want to discuss the race riots and other reactions to the U.S. government, would we? So, I would simply say that your professor is either coming across people who don't routinely visit the American Center/Corner (I'm using them interchangeably for a reason, again) or just "some" people who are spoilers and aren't accepting the invitation to learn about the U.S. just as you or I could avoid going to an event on campus hosted by this or that group.

    Just so I am clear in my response to your point about security concerns/open environment/American Centers and American Corners have nothing to do with the other, here is information on the American Center in Prague:

    ARE YOU …

    * A student collecting materials on Martin Luther King?
    * An academic researching American modern art?
    * A journalist looking for a speech by the U.S. President?
    * Anyone else interested in a U.S.-related topic?

    The American Center is your guide to the United States in the Czech Republic. We offer authoritative, up-to-date information on a wide array of U.S.-related topics as well as events featuring various American artists, writers and other noted figures.

    With our skilled and experienced staff, vast information resources and state-of-the-art technology, we are a natural choice for all those with an interest in the United States.

    The AC is primarily intended to meet the needs of students, government officials, journalists, researchers, academics, and others.

    Our resources include a collection of reference books, over 30 world leading periodicals and on-line and CD-ROM databases. Please check our regularly updated selection of new arrivals.

    All these resources are available free of charge to anybody with a professional or scholarly interest in the United States and related issues.

    We organize seminars, conferences, lectures as well as art exhibits and concerts, all of which are advertised in advance on the main page of this website.

    And here is the opening lines of website for the American Corner in Nicosia (generic mission statement for American Corner programs):

    American Corners are partnerships between the Public Affairs sections of U.S. Embassies and host institutions. They provide access to current and reliable information about the U.S. via book collections, the Internet, and through local programming to the general public. Sponsored jointly by a U.S. embassy and a host country organization, an American Corner serves as an information outpost similar to a public library reference service. The multi-media, book and periodical collections are open and accessible. Associated reading or meeting rooms are made available to host program events and activities (i.e. author readings, films, speaker programs, workshops, films, meetings, and exhibits).

    The fundamental function of the American Corner is to make information about the U.S. available to foreign publics at large. At a minimum, an American Corner should consist of a collection of books in English about the U.S. The book collection may include reference titles, works of fiction, business and government publications. American Corners also provide access to U.S. information through supervised Internet access, audio and video products, CDs, and CD-ROMs. Host institution personnel staff the Corners. Access to American Corner collection is free and open to all interested citizens of the host country. Local staff are fluent in English and demonstrate programming skills.

    So, I'll let you take this in and be the judge on what the difference is between the two titles.


    That's an interesting update on the opening of yet another ACorner in Hungary. I am in agreement with you and welcome the perspective of your comments. I am curious to know why you added the line about "supervision of American Foreign Service Officers." I am assuming that you don't mean as sort of overlords of the corners, but are you alluding to some problem with the host country institutions?